[Event Report] Secularization, Social Movements, and Sea Turtles: Reflections on the 2016 Association for the Sociology of Religion Conference

In this event report Jacqui Frost and Amanda Schutz cover the Association for the Sociology of amanda-picjackie-picReligion’s 2016 annual meeting. They detail the launch of new research projects into Understanding Unbelief as well as offering reflections from Woodhead’s lecture ‘Is No Religion the New Religion.’ Also, they share insights from a convened joint session on what social movement theories can tell us about nonreligion.

This year’s Association for the Sociology of Religion’s annual meeting was taken place on 19th – 21st August in Seattle. The theme was Exploring Diversity: Varieties of Religion and Nonreligion. As a result, there were numerous panels and presentations on the importance of increased sociological investigation into nonreligious experience and community. While there were too many great panels to recount here, including Author Meets Critics sessions for Lois Lee’s Recognizing the Non-religious: Reimagining the Secular and Christel Manning’s Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents Are Raising Their Children, the overall takeaway from the conference was that nonreligious experience is increasingly influential and sociologists will have no choice but to engage with it going forward.

Kicking things off early Saturday morning was Lois Lee’s convened panel titled “Who Cares About Unbelief? Social, Political, and Legal Questions for the Scientific Study of Nonreligious Belief.” This panel came directly out of Lee’s new research initiative (with Stephen Bullivant, Miguel Farias, and Jonathan Lanman), the Understanding Unbelief Programme, which is offering research grants, early career awards, and public engagement funds to further scientific understanding of atheism and other forms of unbelief around the world. The panel was asked a set of questions regarding who, apart from social scientists and unbelievers themselves, might be interested in unbelief and why; in what ways the growth of unbelief will affect local communities, journalists, and public institutions; and how this growth will curb or create new social tensions. Overall, the panelists asked more questions than they answered, but the questions generated are likely to be a primary focus for many nonreligious scholars in the near future. Jessica Martinez from Pew Research Center tackled these questions from a political engagement angle, asking how changes in the religious landscape might result in changes to the political landscape. She discussed how the unaffiliated are now the largest “religious” group in the Democratic Party, but that the unaffiliated have historically been less likely to show up at the polls on Election Day. She raised questions about how the rise in atheists and agnostics among Americans will influence the 2016 election (if at all), and if the unaffiliated will become more politically engaged than they have been previously. Sociologist Rhys Williams focused on social movements and immigration, asking how unbelief might mobilize activism and foster commitment in social movements. He also asked whether nonreligious organizations and communities will be able to cultivate resources and cultural reproduction for immigrants—something that religious organizations have been so good at for centuries. Journalist David Briggs implored nonreligious scholars to help journalists get the story right by providing them with responsible summaries and statistics, and religious studies scholar Joseph Blankholm focused on organized non-belief. Finally, education scholar Alyssa Rockenbach asked how higher education influences nonreligious beliefs and behaviors. While there has been a lot of research about the “secularizing effect” (or lack thereof) that higher education has on religious students, Rockenbach pointed to the need for similar studies on the nonreligious students.

On Saturday night, the presidential address was read by Mary Jo Neitz, as president Lori Beaman was unable to attend the conference. Beaman’s written address, titled “Living Well Together in a (non)Religious Future: Contributions from the Sociology of Religion,” centered largely around the experiences of… sea turtle rescuers. Beaman’s proclamation that she will henceforth be known as the “crazy sea turtle lady” did not deter her from spending most of the allotted hour discussing people’s motivations for rescuing stranded baby sea turtles and the ways this activity has affected their lives and relationships. But what do sea turtle rescuers have to do with the study of religion or nonreligion? Beaman stressed that the “threat” of nonreligion is an ongoing and important social force, creating opportunities for conflict with an established institution. However, this division also creates opportunities for cooperation. Sea turtle rescuers are an example of cooperation: they represent a case of people overcoming worldview differences to participate in shared action that emphasizes similarities across life forms, provides meaning, and “soothes the soul.” In this way, Beaman suggests, “examining sites of action and activism can help us to better understand the contours of both religion and nonreligion.”

The next day, Ryan Cragun convened a joint session with the American Sociological Association titled “What Social Movements Theories Can Tell Us About Nonreligion.” Rhys Williams kicked off the panel by emphasizing cultural context, boundedness, and resonance, and how nonreligious movements will have to overcome the legitimacy of religion in the American context by taking on similar forms but changing the content. Penny Edgell offered both “promises and pitfalls” of a social movement approach to nonreligion. Promises include a focus on identity and the cultural work that it takes to create nonreligious identities and movements. A social movements approach allows for a de-centering of belief and a shift towards lived, institutionalized nonreligion that moves past the dead ends of the secularization debate. However, Edgell argued that not everything should be seen through a social movements lens, and she argued that social movement theories often make the mistake of seeing identity as a “thing” as opposed to a set of belief and values that change over time. She argued for more work on “indifference” and stigma among the nonreligious, both of which require more than a social movements perspective. Joseph Blankholm focused on the “messy etymology of humanism” and the ways the secular humanist movement has co-opted the term to expand what the “secular” can mean. He described the boundary work being done by secular humanist groups as they navigate tax laws and church/state battles and attempt to set themselves apart from other humanist and secular groups, as well as religious organizations.

Linda Woodhead closed the conference Sunday night with the Paul Hanly Furfey lecture titled “Is No Religion the New Religion?” which focused on nonreligion in Britain. (Woodhead also gave this lecture at the British Academy earlier this year, covered in this event report by Lois Lee.) In 1983, 31% of the population identified as religious nones; in 2013, 51% claimed no religious affiliation (more than double what it is in the US). Nones in Britain tend to be liberal and tolerant of diversity. They are more likely than the general population to be white, but there is no significant difference along lines of gender or class (again, unlike the US). Nonreligion is the norm for younger Britons, and 95% of those raised by nonreligious parents will remain nonreligious (only 55% of those raised religious remain so). Only 13% of nones (5% of the total population) are explicitly anti-theist, what Woodhead calls “Dawkins atheists.” Most nones, however, fall somewhere in the middle: they are either nonbelievers or simply not strong believers who practice spirituality in private. Woodhead suggests a Durkheimian approach for studying the nonreligious, focusing on practices relative to the sacred. But what do nones consider sacred? Woodhead notices some trends, including a lack of deference to authority: everyone has the potential to be fulfilled and to make the most of their lives on their own terms. She also described new rituals gaining in popularity in Britain, including prom, preschool graduations, and house parties. These events can be interpreted as a source of collective ritual and intimate connectedness. (Sea turtle rescuers, for instance, may see the environment as providing ritual and connectedness!) These ideals and rituals that nonreligious Britons hold sacred constitutes what Woodhead calls the “new religion.”

The conference was—like Lee writes in her own report of Linda Woodhead’s lecture—a “celebration” of a young field of study that is “really coming into its own.” With too many relevant sessions to report, see this year’s conference program for more of the latest research focusing on nonreligion and secularism. The Association for the Sociology of Religion’s 2017 annual meeting will be held August 12-14 in Montreal, Quebec.


Jacqui Frost is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on non-religious identities and communities and her dissertation is an ethnographic study of the Sunday Assembly, a nascent network of non-religious congregations. As a research fellow with the American Mosaic Project, Jacqui is involved in numerous projects exploring religious and non-religious diversity in American life, including the influence of conservative religiosity on understandings of racial inequality, the rates and patterns of volunteering among the non-religious, and the influence of different non-religious identities on social and political attitudes.

Amanda Schutz is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Arizona. Her dissertation research takes a qualitative mixed methods approach to understanding diversity in nonreligious organizations and individual involvement in such groups. Other research looks at atheist identity disclosure and gender differences in nonreligious experiences.

CFP: Rethinking Boundaries in the Study of Religion and Politics

Postgraduate Conference: Rethinking Boundaries in the Study of Religion and Politics

11-12 September 2015

University of Aberdeen

Submission Deadline: 19 June 2015

A common approach to the study of religion and politics frames the inquiry using boundaries. Such boundaries include religion/secular, private/public, belief/practice and theism/atheism, to name just a few. It may be argued that these categorisations are analytically useful in understanding social phenomena because, for example, what is ‘religious’ should be analysed in relation to what is ‘secular.’ Another approach may instead point to the problem with the construction of such binaries in that empirically these distinctions become blurred, so that framing an action, for example as ‘public’ or ‘private’, does not reflect the diversity of human experience. Continue reading

CFP: International Conference on Religion and Spirituality in Society

Sixth International Conference on Religion and Spirituality in Society

23-24 May 2016

The Catholic University of America


Washington D.C., USA

Current Submission Deadline*:
 18 March 2015

PLEASE NOTE: The Fifth International Conference on Religion and Spirituality in Society is taking place at the University of California at Berkley, 16-17 April 2015. Proposals are still being accepted for a short time. Click here for more details.

Continue reading

CFP: Atheism: Psychological Perspectives – Secularism & Nonreligion Journal Symposia

The journal Secularism & Nonreligion is planning to propose a symposium of 3-4 individual papers for the upcoming 2015 International Association for the Psychology of Religion (IAPR) World Congress. We invite you to submit proposals falling under the broad theme of psychological perspectives on atheism for consideration as part of the proposed symposia. Some topics and perspectives include, but are not limited to: cognitive science, qualitative/quantitative methods, psychological-anthropology, phenomenology, ethnography, cultural psychology, and philosophy of science. We are particularly interested in papers covering atheism outside of the Western context. Continue reading

Event: American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting

American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting

22-25 November 2014

San Diego, CA, USA

The American Academy of Religion brings thousands of professors and students, authors and publishers, religious leaders and interested laypersons to its Annual Meeting each year. Co-hosted with the Society of Biblical Literature, the Annual Meetings are the largest events of the year in the fields of religious studies and theology. More than 1,000 events—academic sessions, additional meetings, receptions, tours, and workshops—will be offered.

Most sessions will take place at the San Diego Convention Center located at 111 W Harbor Drive, San Diego, CA 92101. Conference hotels are located within easy walking distance of the Convention Center. San Diego is just 120 miles south of Claremont, CA, where the 2014 NSRN Conference takes place 19-20 November. Several NSRN presenters and attendees will also be present at the AAR Annual Meeting.

CFP: Religion and Realism

The American University of Rome are pleased to announce a CALL FOR PAPERS for an International Conference on RELIGION AND REALISM

Date of the conference: November 28, 2014

Deadline for paper proposals: September 1, 2014

Rome, The American University of Rome.

Religion remains one of the most significant social forces and cultural constituencies. It can be said that religion and religious truths are becoming increasingly important in the so called “post-secular” times, when the sphere of the (secular) social/political and the sphere of the religious have to be re-thought again. The relevancy of religious truths and the way they structure our understanding of “reality” overcomes the sphere of theology and particular religious practices. Religion, truth, and reality, and the way these concepts are approached and understood, continue to be vital for a broader cultural discourse as well, from philosophy and science, to politics, mass media and show business.

“Realism,” on the other hand, is usually understood as a position and method, which is opposite to “idealism” and the “imaginary.” “Realism” implies a certain way of approaching the reality and truth. Looking from a positivistic perspective, many would find it difficult to associate concepts of “realism” or “truth” with phenomena such as religion. However, the experience of the post-modern times has taught us that relations between the “reality,” “truth,” “knowledge” and “interpretation” are far more complex, and that even the purest “fiction” is sometimes capable of being more effective (and therefore more “real”) in influencing our lives and in structuring the world in which we live, than most of the things that are directly exposed to our sensuous experience and rational reflection. On the other hand, we have also learned from the experience of modernity that certain metaphysical narratives, and their claims for “absolute truth” and “absolute reality,” could be very dangerous in their practical, social and political manifestations.

The conference seeks to explore philosophical, social, political, and theological dimensions of religion and realism. The themes and subjects for paper proposals include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Secularism, post-secularism, new religiosity
  • Religion and reality
  • Religion and truth
  • Religion and subversion
  • Religion and political reality
  • Religion and economic “realisms”
  • Absolute “truths” and social/political freedom
  • Ultimate truth: tyranny or liberation?
  • Realism as epistemology
  • Realism – the political dimension
  • Realism – the aesthetic dimension
  • Realism – the religious/theological
  • Realism and the “New Realism”
  • Understanding metaphysical, physical and social “reality”
  • Reality and creativity
  • Reality and religion: the need for interpretation or for a social change?
  • Power, reality and knowledge

Submitting proposals: English will be the working language of the conference. Paper proposals (abstracts) should contain no more than 250 words.

There will be no conference fee for speakers. All presented papers will be published in the conference proceedings.

Abstracts, together with a short CV (not to exceed 1800 characters) should be sent no later than September 1, 2014 to: religionrealism@gmail.com